Military adaptation: Use aerial reconnaissance technology to monitor your plant


You may have seen stories on TV about small radio-controlled aircraft performing dangerous recon duties in hostile situations. An Air Force technician can sit safely in a control bunker and fly a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) into a situation much too dangerous for a helicopter, guiding fire control or smart bombs, or sending back video. It's fascinating technology and has probably spared many lives. Now that same technology is available for your plant.

VistaNav-SSR from Mercury Computer Systems is a fully integrated system which includes a ground station, integrated VistaNav synthetic vision system, the actual aircraft (aerial vehicle), and assorted electronic sensors. It's basically everything you need to fly the UAV and receive information back. Mercury is no newcomer to this technology. It is a major supplier for military systems in all sorts of applications and has been developing 3D vision for more than 20 years.

We aren't talking about a little model airplane. This UAV is about 10 ft long with a 9 ft wingspan. It weighs a maximum of 80 lb at takeoff and needs a runway 300 ft long. This is a serious aircraft, and can carry a lot of instrumentation and control equipment.

Imagine this situation: You have a pipeline or electrical transmission lines to check out. Maybe you haven't done a thorough inspection of your tank farm in a while. You send out your UAV to have a look. It navigates using GPS and terrain feature identification based on information from a Federal Government database. With synthetic vision capability, it can create its own 3D terrain mapping for you, with as much detail as you need for your application.

For an easy surveillance mission, the plane can send back live video if it's line-of-site. If live video isn't practical, it can inspect an area on its own, and record odd situations based on anomaly detection software. It will take pictures or video of what it doesn't think should be there, and send them back via satellite link. If you're concerned about something being too hot or cold, use an infrared sensing camera.

With a full fuel tank, the craft can stay aloft for more than five hours. If you want a long view, it can reach an altitude of 10,000 ft. For something more close-in, bring it down to 200 ft. It can fly lower, legally, than a manned aircraft. Since it has to fly in the same airspace as commercial and private planes, your UAV can have an air traffic control transponder and be equipped with the latest in collision avoidance technology.

"Building on the success of our VistaNav general aviation synthetic vision system, we are extending the benefits of 3D situational awareness to small unmanned aircraft systems," said Philippe Roy, Director and General Manager of the Navigation & Simulation Systems Group at Mercury. "VistaNav-SSR is an affordable, easy-to-use system that will enable customers to perform very high-performance missions while significantly minimizing human error and, more importantly, human fatalities in hazardous but necessary applications."

Of course, the notion of affordable is relative. "A simple system, with line-of-site video, no satellite communication, and basic controls starts around $100,000 to $150,000," says Roy. "With satcom, anti-collision capabilities, multiple aircraft tracking ground station capability, it can run $700,000. The configuration is very scalable."

Although it seems expensive, compare it against the alternatives. There may not be many ways to gather the same information that are much cheaper.

Control Engineering Daily News Desk
Peter Welander , process industries editor

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